RABAT Reforms that took the wind out of Arab Spring protests in Morocco last year have proven hollow and real power still lies with King Mohammed and his advisors, the north African country's main opposition group said.
The king appointed an Islamist as prime minister last year after holding early elections and instituted constitutional reforms that, on the face of it, limited royal control to military, security and religious affairs.
But a recent tour of Gulf Arab states that was led by the king exposed where real power lies, said Fathallah Arsalane, a senior member of al-Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality), a sect-like organization steeped in Morocco's Sufi Islamic tradition that opposes the Alawite family's rule.
"People are now convinced the steps taken in Morocco are more or less superficial, which is exactly how the regime responded to pressure in the past," Arsalane told Reuters. "It's become clear that it is the monarchy in control."
The king led the large delegation to the Gulf in October to seek financial help after a decline in tourism and remittances from Moroccans living abroad.
Without foreign aid, the government would be faced with cutting state subsidies that help the population buy essential goods, raising the risk of a new wave of protests.
The king and his advisors appeared to dominate proceedings, confirming the view of many that the government led by Abdelilah Benkirane and his Islamist PJD party has slipped into the secondary role occupied by previous cabinets.
"The Gulf trip was clear - the advisors of the king were there on the first rung and ministers were on the second," said Arsalane, a member of his group's Guidance Council.
An advisor to King Mohammed said during the Qatar leg of the visit that Morocco expected to receive the first tranche of $2.5 billion in aid promised by wealthy Gulf states early next year.
Gulf rulers want to shore up the fellow monarchy after Arab Spring uprisings brought down the leaders of four Arab republics - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, in the last two years.
"They are monarchies in the Gulf and they are like dominoes. If one goes, the others will go too. They are sticking together and they don't want any weak link among them," Arsalane said.
BANNED FROM POLITICS
While the PJD accepts the monarchy, Al-Adl Wal Ihsane and its ageing leader Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine refuse to recognize the king's status as 'Commander of the Faithful'.
The group, which is banned from formal politics, does not say how many Moroccans support it, but diplomats believe it is the only opposition organization capable of mass mobilization.
Many Sunni Muslim clerics disapprove of al-Adl Wal Ihsane because of its traditional North African Sufi character, with its veneration of saints and shrines and unique religious rituals dismissed by Sunni Muslim clerics as superstition.
The PJD is ideologically closer to Arab Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood organization that is widely believed to enjoy the backing of Qatar.
Such groups came to power in Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring uprisings, while the PJD remains in uneasy alliance with a palace that found it expedient to allow it into government.
Morocco recently said it would allow Qatar's Al Jazeera television to reopen offices that were shut in 2010 and Arsalane said he expected the leading Arab broadcaster to continue to sideline his group.
He said Arab media were ignoring almost daily protests by unemployed graduates in the capital Rabat. Morocco's Arab Spring protest movement, known as 'February 20', has largely petered out after al-Adl Wal Ihsane quit over disputes with secularists.
Arsalane avoided criticism of Benkirane, often ridiculed in the establishment press as lacking power, but said state media had reverted to linking all development in Morocco to the king.
The country ranks 130 out of 187 countries on the U.N. human development index, 56 percent of adults among its 33 million population are illiterate and its cities are blighted by slums.
"The PJD and Benkirane's idea is reform from within," said Arsalane, adding that poverty and democratic progress elsewhere in north Africa would maintain pressure on the monarchy.
"Morocco used to appear as the liberal, open country before. But now these countries have gone beyond Morocco and Morocco is embarrassed," he said.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)